Human Rights or Privacy Rights? School System Faces Dilemma

Susan Jones | Senior Editor | Friday, October 19, 2007

Human Rights or Privacy Rights? School System Faces Dilemma

( - Does New York state human rights law apply to public school students? The Ithaca, N.Y., school system says no -- and therein lies a legal battle that is igniting passions and racial tensions in the community.

The Ithaca City School District, faced with a racial discrimination case involving a group of public school students, is challenging the New York State Division of Human Rights in court.

The school system argues that the state agency does not have jurisdiction to represent a black student who complained of racial discrimination at DeWitt Middle School during the 2005-2006 school year.

Amelia Kearney, the student's mother, says she complained repeatedly to school officials about her daughter's treatment by a group of white boys two years ago. As the alleged harassment continued, Kearney accused the school of failing to respond quickly and effectively.

Kearney filed a complaint with the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, part of the New York State Division of Human Rights.

And the school responded with a restraining order, arguing that the human rights commission does not have legal jurisdiction over public school students because there's no way the commission can protect students' privacy rights, which are guaranteed under federal law. The commission's procedure includes public hearings.

Moreover, the Ithaca City School District argued that it would be forced to violate federal privacy laws in defending itself. It can't publicly release student records, for example.

"The district believes parents who feel their children have been discriminated against should take the issue up with the State Education Commissioner or the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights," the Ithaca Journal quoted one school official as saying.

The case has broad implications: If a New York appeals court agrees with Ithaca schools, then public school students across New York State would no longer be protected under state human rights law.

On Sept. 11, 2007, a NewYork Supreme Court judge ruled that state human rights law does apply to public schools. The school district is now appealing that ruling, amid pressure from some groups to drop the case.

Lambda Legal, a homosexual advocacy group, is among those urging the Ithaca City School District to abandon its argument that New York human rights law does not apply to public school students.

Lambda has sent a letter to school board members, "analyzing" their argument -- "and explaining the potential harm the board's position could cause."

According to Lambda Legal, state human rights law is the only effective law that expressly addresses "anti-gay" discrimination in New York Schools. Removing that protection would jeopardize LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students, said Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda's deputy legal director.

At its October 23, meeting the Ithaca Board of Education will discuss a proposal to drop its challenge, Lambda Legal said.

Meanwhile, some in the Ithaca community are furious with the Ithaca school system for bringing the legal challenge and continuing to pursue it.

Press reports say there have been protests outside the superintendent's office. And racial tensions are said to be high at Ithaca High School, which has beefed up its police presence in recent days -- amid rumors of impending violence at the school.

The Ithaca Journal reported on Friday that almost half of Ithaca High School's student body was absent from school for at least half of the day on Thursday because of parental concerns about student safety.

The absences reportedly stem from rumors about a student hit list.